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False Jobs heart attack post highlights perils of citizen journalism

Report on CNN-sponsored site taken seriously because of CNN's reputation, some say

By Heather Havenstein
October 3, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Today's false  report on CNN's iReport site that Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack is a strong example of potential pitfalls posed by so-called citizen journalists.

The report prompted a temporary 10% tumble in the company's stock price before Apple moved quickly to quash the report that Jobs had been hospitalized for chest pains and shortness of breath. Though CNN quickly yanked the report from the Web, the citizen journalist posting the phony report had already done the damage. The CNN site allows any Internet user to report news.

The stock rebounded only after the share price fell below $100 for the first time since May 2007.

CNN said in a statement in Computerworld that iReport is an entirely user-generated site where content is determined by the community of users.

"Content that does not comply with community guidelines will be removed," the statement noted. "After the content in question was uploaded to iReport.com, the community brought it to our attention.  Based on our terms of use that govern user behavior on iReport.com, the fraudulent content was removed from the site and the user's account was disabled."

While many news sites using citizen journalists filter comments or posts from citizens before they go live, CNN does not, said Ellyn Angelotti, interactivity editor and adjunct faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists and journalist professors.

The main goal of CNN iReport "is to really empower citizens to be the reporters," she said Friday. "They don't want to be that filter the way that some news organizations feel is important. Citizen journalists can't exist without real journalists out there to fact-check and provide sense out of these floods of information."

She added that other breaking news stories have been uncovered first by updates to Wikipedia or Twitter messages. While this story originated on a CNN site, she added that CNN has distinguished between the iReport and official CNN reporting.

"[On iReport] they are saying this person reported it and they are a CNN iReporter, but what that means is they are a citizen journalist, and this is information that is coming from the community and not something that we have had a chance to verify through our news sources," Angelotti said.

Erick Schonfeld, a blogger at TechCrunch, said that this incident shows that iReport news carries more weight than a Twitter microblog or other blog posts because it is on a CNN site.

"That may be purely because it gets distributed more broadly," he added. "It could also be because people tend to believe what they read on CNN-branded sites. There needs to be a better truth filter on iReport and other sites that allow the anonymous reporting of news. A better reputation system for contributors would help."

Adam Ostrow, a blogger at Mashable, noted that Internet rumors concerning the stock market have been popping up long before those posting them were called "citizen journalists."

"I think this is mainly a special circumstance -- concerns about Jobs' health have been in the news for months, and any indication that it is moving in one direction or the other has had implications for Apple's shares," he noted. "Further, the premise of iReport is that the best news makes it on-air to CNN (presumably after being verified by professional journalists) [and] that didn't seem to happen here. News about public companies is obviously a delicate subject, but I would hardly call this blunder the beginning of the end for citizen journalism."

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